Worst engineering failure in U.S. history made us safer

St Francis Dam
St Francis Dam

In recent months, disasters are unfortunately on the minds of too many Americans. The loss of life and infrastructure are overwhelming and we all pray that new lessons are learned to help prevent similar disasters from happening in the future. 

That is why the Saint Francis Dam Disaster National Memorial Act is timely and significant. Almost 90 years ago, on March 12, 1928, the St. Francis Dam ruptured, sending a 180-foot tower of water hurtling down San Francisquito Canyon in northeastern Los Angeles County.

{mosads}The floodwaters killed more than 431 people and destroyed homes and property, causing millions of dollars in damage. This bill would establish a national memorial honoring the victims of the 1928 St. Francis Dam collapse.


The dam’s failure is widely regarded as the nation’s worst civil engineering disaster and while it caused a catastrophic loss of life, it also brought about a new era of engineering oversight and methods for dam building across the nation.

The recent devastating impact of Hurricanes Harvey and Maria underscore the importance of commemorating the St. Francis Dam disaster and the importance of saving lives by learning from these unfortunate events.

Hurricane Harvey tore through Texas, dumping a trillion gallons of rainfall on Harris County in a four-day period, and raising concerns about whether the Addicks Dam would flood downtown Houston.

Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico, causing a major breach in the emergency spillway of the Guajataca Damand endangering the lives of 70,000 people.

The Addicks Dam held, but news stories about the Guajataca Dam disaster suggest that proper upkeep and an upgrade to current standards could have averted the incident.

The St. Francis Dam was conceived after renegade Owens Valley ranchers sabotaged the aqueduct that brought water that originated high in the Sierra Nevada Mountains to the Los Angeles Basin. Designed by William Mullholland, the controversial Los Angeles Department of Water and Power chief engineer, aiming to supply water to the city of Los Angeles.

It is important to note that the area surrounding the dam site is historical Tataviam Native American territory. When the dam burst, Native Americans, agricultural farmworkers and Southern California Edison work crews were among those who perished in the path of destruction.

Soon after the St. Francis Dam failure, the federal government ordered a safety inspection and review of all their dams, largely due to public pressure. In California, legislation was passed that gave the state engineer the authority to review all non-federal dams within California. And in the early 1930s, the Bureau of Reclamation, Corps of Engineers and Tennessee Valley Authority all hired professional staff with expertise in engineering and geology. 

In addition, during the years following the dam’s rupture, Congress created the Colorado River Board to review plans of the proposed Hoover Dam. It was the Colorado River Board that changed the ultimate location of the Dam from Boulder Canyon to Black Canyon. The board also recommended engineering changes that enhanced the Hoover Dam’s safety, including increasing the capacity of its spillway and flood storage.

This bill, introduced by California lawmakers Reps. Steve Knight (R), Julia Brownley (D), Sens. Kamala Harris (D) and Dianne Feinstein (D), creating a new national memorial will deservedly honor those who lost their lives in the St. Francis Dam disaster. The compelling account of the dam’s failure, and how that fundamentally changed the amount of oversight guiding the construction of dams in the United States, is a story worth telling. 

This important piece of history should be protected and the stories and lessons from the dam failure will be told in perpetuity, as we approach the 90th anniversary of the disaster in 2018. We urge the U.S. Senate to swiftly pass this bi-partisan, non-controversial and widely supported legislation. 

Laurene Weste is mayor pro tem of the city of Santa Clarita, California.
Lori Cannon Spragens is the executive director of the Association of State Dam Safety Officials.

Tags Dianne Feinstein Infrastructure Julia Brownley Laurene Weste and Lori Cannon Spragens

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